Anonymous social media apps allow posting in the dark

Posted Tuesday, May. 13, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Aaron LaRue thought it was comical that a server at a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles would give him a fork and his Asian friend chopsticks.

He wanted to post about it on social media but feared a potential backlash from racially sensitive friends. So he turned to Secret, a new social network that lets users say whatever they want without revealing their identities.

“I wouldn’t tweet that. I wouldn’t put that on Facebook,” he said. “So by posting that on Secret, I get to share something that I thought was a funny experience and I have literally no repercussions.”

Secret is among a wave of mobile apps that let smartphone users share their unabridged observations and life experiences anonymously.

They are growing in popularity because they allow users to speak freely and instantly about topics they might not feel comfortable sharing or discussing on Facebook and other social networks that require revealing their identities.

The apps are being used to confess a guilt, to rant about a friend or family member, or to simply laugh over an embarrassing moment.

“I pretend to be Beyonce in the shower. But I usually end up looking like a struggling wet ostrich,” a Secret user in New York posted on the app.

Sometimes the posts are poignant. A Secret user in Seattle wrote: “Yesterday, I filled my bathtub, took a razor, and sank in it to end it all. My dog came into the bathroom and put his tiny paws on the tub. I instead went to bed crying.”

Unlike websites such as 4chan and Ask.fm that allow anonymous posting, these mobile apps are gaining popularity because they allow people to immediately share their thoughts without fear of repercussions or others judging them, said Karen North, a social media expert at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“People are not hard-wired to keep secrets or even to want to keep secrets,” she said. “People want to get those secrets off their chest. And now we have apps that allow people to say and do things anonymously.”

But while these apps are gaining users and raising millions in venture capital funding, they also are raising worries from privacy advocates who say anonymous users can too easily spread false rumors, malign people by name and bully their peers.

Yik Yak, an anonymous social app that launched in December, was forced to temporarily disable its services in Chicago in March after middle and high school students used it to cyberbully their classmates. That same month, an anonymous bomb threat posted on the platform forced San Clemente High School in South Coast, Calif., to go on lockdown for a day.

Yik Yak says it is monitoring posts for those that might be deemed harmful and have blocked usage of the app at middle and high schools.

These anonymous apps generally work similarly with slight variations in features and functions.

Users have to download and install the app on a smartphone. For Secret — which is available only for the iPhone — new users have to provide an email address and share their smartphone address book. Users are then able to view anonymous messages posted by anyone on the users’ contact list. Users see posts shared by “friends of friends,” any posts that receive likes by their friends and posts shared by other users nearby.

For Whisper, one of the first anonymous mobile apps, launched two years ago, users don’t have to provide email information — accounts are tied to users’ devices. Whatever is posted using the app can be seen, liked and commented on by anyone else using Whisper.

Secret, which launched in late January, already has raised more than $10 million — $8.6 million from Google Ventures — and began expanding internationally in late April. The San Francisco start-up also reportedly met with Facebook to discuss how the two companies can work together.

The new wave of anonymous apps is threatening Facebook and other social networks, which critics say have increasingly become a forum for feel-good comments and self-promotion. That is leading to the popularity of the anonymous apps, which allow users to talk about topics besides weddings, birthdays and graduations, North said.

As Facebook has “become saturated and everybody you know is on it — your friends, your family, acquaintances, business colleagues — it’s very hard to share something that’s really personal because it goes out to this mixed audience and it stays permanent on your profile,” said Chrys Bader-Wechseler, one of Secret’s founders. “It has become a formal place to share information and life events, but we see less and less and less of people just being honest.”

On anonymous apps, users will often post and have discussions related to their careers, sex and health, and their failures. The topics that aren’t fit for Facebook often go on anonymous apps.

Users announce their engagements and pregnancies on Facebook, but on Secret users will often ask for advice about wedding proposals and post pictures of their pregnancy tests, Bader-Wechseler said.

Patricia Jimenez, a 22-year-old student who lives in Boyle Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood, said she’s received helpful advice from others on Whisper, ranging from tips on major life problems to simple suggestions for places to eat or hang out.

“I have gone more to Whisper to ask for advice than to go to my own friends. I know it sounds kind of bad, but they’re all busy,” she said. “I don’t want to bother them with pity problems. Other people (on Whisper) have those pity problems as well, and we’re trying to solve them together.”

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